Posts Tagged ‘SPURS’

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Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS): All About Your Blogger

September 24th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

Your SPURS blogger, Eric Lindstrom, discussing the Aquarius mission.

After several weeks of your following my postings from the field, I thought it would be good to tell you a little about myself. Maybe that will help explain the weird wanderings of the blog or the subject matters I choose to write about.

Let’s start at the beginning: I grew up in Seal Beach, California, very near the ocean. It seems to me like I actually grew up on the sand and in the water. So, I am pretty well infused and enthused by the seas. This has driven me toward a broad knowledge of ocean subjects. I felt that drive vindicated when National Geographic Society tapped me as senior scientific consultant (pro bono) on their first ocean atlas project.

When did I decide to become an oceanographer? I was pretty interested in the field in middle and high school. Science seemed like where I was headed. Being a good student, I was able to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, before I finished my freshman year, I fell in love with the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. It was a short course in astronomy that got me hooked. They really reeled me in when I realized that Earth science was just then being revolutionized by the ideas of plate tectonics and that oceanographers at MIT were bringing back the first pictures of hydrothermal vents on the mid-ocean ridges. There was not much in the way of undergraduate education in oceanography at MIT, but lots of good basic math, physics, geology, geophysics, and research opportunities. I can date myself by recalling the glorious summer of 1976, when I stayed in Boston for the bicentennial and to do my undergraduate research project on data from Lake Ontario. The lake wasn’t salty, but it was a great little laboratory for oceanography ideas! That summer truly set me on course to pursue physical oceanography as a career (and provided my first publication with Prof. John Bennett: “A simple model of Lake Ontario’s coastal boundary layer,” in Journal of Physical Oceanography, July 1977).  Most scientists remember their first publication quite fondly and I am no exception!

Graduate school at University of Washington was filled with studies and expeditions. It took me six years to get my Masters and a Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Oceanography degrees. My dissertation was on eddies in the North Atlantic Ocean. It turned out that eddies deep below the surface of the ocean can carry water across the ocean from quite distant places and arrive in the Sargasso Sea with evidence of their origins from as far afield as the Labrador Sea, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, or the Mediterranean Sea. The idea that these origins and travels could be traced using salinity measurements was intoxicating (in a nerdy sort of a way) for a young oceanographer. I loved the data collection part of the project; being part of the right team with the right equipment in the right place at the right time to make some discovery that would move science forward. The ocean is still virtually unexplored, so every well-planned expedition has potential for great discovery. Once oceanographic expedition science is in your blood, it’s hard to give it up! I found a great opportunity for doing more expedition research by moving to Australia in 1983. The country had expanded ocean research greatly at that time due to advent of the Law of the Sea and extended Exclusive Economic Zones. Sometimes, timing is everything!

In Australia, I became engrossed in studies of the western tropical Pacific Ocean circulation and in the planning for the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE). By the end of the 1980s, the former had seen me on many expeditions near exotic tropical islands and the latter looked to be the oceanography opportunity of the 1990s. I moved back to the U.S., still working on the same projects, but with a new home base. By the mid-1990s I was the US WOCE Program Scientist in Washington, D.C. That involved organizing scientific plans, budgets, and logistics for the largest mapping of ocean waters ever undertaken, involving voyages across the globe for nearly a decade. I was bitten by the vision of global ocean observing provided by WOCE and still suffer from that fever.

Eric, giving a talk at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

When the opportunity arose in 1997 to lead NASA’s Physical Oceanography Program, I had the right stuff: solid experience with the ocean, ocean programs in DC, ocean researchers in general, and virtually no heritage at all with satellite oceanography (but NASA said I could learn that on the job!)

It was in my first days at NASA HQ that I began energizing NASA’s drive toward measuring ocean salinity from space. All I had to do was enable those with the knowledge and skill to realize the dream (it certainly was not a new idea) – and prove to NASA that it was both possible and useful. And here we are today. I am back out on a research vessel, doing what I love, with Aquarius, our ocean surface salinity instrument, on orbit overhead and a whole community of scientists curious about ocean salinity and the global water cycle. It’s one small victory for this man, and one giant leap for physical oceanography.

Eric, taking a break on an Argo float box after a long day of blogging at sea.

Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS): The Moods of Sea and Sky

September 21st, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

A beautiful day in the trade winds zone, with its typical cumulus clouds.

From the shipboard perspective, all we really see of the sea is the surface. Of course we can see into the water a short way, right close to the ship, but not very far. The horizon is 360 degrees and the great dome of sky seems endless.

Being that we are about a thousand miles from the nearest port, it is also fair to say that all we see from the ship is sea surface and sky. These are the shades of blue that I referred to in an earlier post. When this is all one has to see aside from the Knorr, our shipmates, and interesting oceanographic data (OK, we watch movies too!), it should come as no surprise that everyone becomes sensitive to the moods of the sea and sky. When you want a moment alone, the likely place to go is on deck, and there you are confronted with some new variation of the sea and sky.

We are working in what is called the trade winds zone. It is a belt of generally east and northeast winds north of the equator and east or southeast winds south of the equator that are quite steady and global in extent (in the days of sail, one’s trade depended on using routes through these reliable wind zones). In the trades zone, we might expect relatively steady 10-15 mph winds and fair skies with broken clouds. One characteristic of the fair weather cumulus clouds in the trades is that they lean over because of wind shear in the atmosphere. The blue sky dominates the evenly scattered puffy white leaning clouds that seem to all have the same base (maybe 3,000 feet above the sea).

The trade wind cumulus clouds break up the bright shades of blue on the sea surface by casting rapidly evolving shadows across the sea. The color of the sea surface certainly depends on the light reflected from the sky (a gray sky can give the ocean a grayer look) but also depends on the intrinsic color of water, which is blue.

We had few days where there seemed to be a pink hue to the sky (especially at the low sun angles of morning and late afternoon). This is likely the result of having more Saharan dust suspended in the atmosphere. It is quite common for dust storms to carry thousands of miles out over the ocean.

Sunset in the Sargasso, with hints of Saharan dust.

The color of the water depends on the angle at which you view it and the height of the sun. One of the cool things I see in the open ocean is that when you look down into the deep waters in the middle of a sunny day there is a radiation of sunbeams seemingly coming back at you from the depths. It gives the blue ocean a kind of jewel-like quality.

Sun beams in the Sargasso Sea.


Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS): An Oceanographer And The Water Cycle

September 19th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

SPURS Chief Scientist Ray Schmitt.

SPURS Chief Scientist Ray Schmitt has been thinking about the salt in the ocean for a long time. He did his PhD thesis on an unusual form of mixing called “salt fingers,” which we will discuss in a later post. This small scale mixing process led him to consider the origins of the ocean salinity contrasts that we see around the world.

It’s fairly obvious that salty waters arise from high evaporation regions and fresher waters originate from high rainfall areas or river flows into the ocean. But it turns out that accurate estimates of evaporation and rainfall over the ocean were hard to come by. For a long time, it was a relatively neglected research topic. Many meteorologists were only concerned about how much it rained on land and few seemed to care if it rained on the ocean. Pulling together the best data he could, Ray found that, in fact, the ocean completely dominated the global water cycle. The terrestrial part, so important to us on a daily basis, is a much smaller piece. The oceans hold 97 percent of the Earths free water, the atmosphere only 0.001 percent. The oceans provide 86 percent of global evaporation and receive 78 percent of all rainfall. The total of all river flows into the ocean sums to less than 10 percent of global ocean evaporation. Clearly, if one wants to find out what the water cycle is doing, one should be looking at the oceans. The traditional fixation on the terrestrial water cycle is understandable, but risks missing the big picture. It seems that the tail is wagging the dog in terms of research on the global water cycle!

A traditional view of the water cycle.

The oceanographers’ view of the water cycle.

Of course, one of the most important questions for climate change is what the water cycle will do with continued warming. Basic physics tells us that a warmer atmosphere will hold more water vapor, so an intensified water cycle is expected. Oceanographers should be able to assess any trend in the water cycle if we do a good job in monitoring ocean salinity. On land, man has altered every watershed with dams, groundwater irrigation, deforestation and human consumption. But the ocean’s mostly unaltered and its salinity field provides insight into the vast majority of the pristine natural water cycle. The ocean has its own rain gauge in the form of salinity, and our task in SPURS is to learn how to read it.

The combination of the global coverage from Aquarius for surface salinity, detailed process studies in the ocean like SPURS, and sophisticated high-resolution computer models working in concert open up the oceanic water cycle to careful scientific examination.

Aquarius salinity data from the first week of September 2012. (Credit: Oleg Melnichenko at University of Hawaii IPRC.)

A SPURS Waveglider begins its journey to study upper ocean salinity.

We are beginning to deploy the array of instruments on the ship and they are starting their year-long mission to examine the ocean salinity variations. Our challenge is to understand the detailed picture of salinity that will be painted by the various sensors and to make sense of this in the larger picture of the global water cycle.

Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS): Plastic Ocean

September 18th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

The R/V Knorr, in the beautiful Sargasso Sea.

One of the things that we worry about on the ship, as part of our daily routine, is trash. Nothing goes over the side unless it is biodegradable. We have separate trash cans for plastics, foils, and other such material that would pollute the ocean. There are cans with paper liners for food scraps and paper waste. We keep the deck clean and our eyes open for any loose cable tie or anything else that could be washed overboard. It’s our duty to pick these things up and dispose of them properly.

It may be surprising to some of you how much plastic is already in the ocean. It’s both amazing and depressing. If one stands by the ship’s rail and watches the water go by, as one wants to do in an idle moment, it is quite shocking to realize that more man-made objects can be observed than natural ones (like fish). A 2005 report from the U.N. Environment Program estimated that, on average, more than 13,000 visible pieces of plastic litter were floating on any square kilometer of ocean.

A piece of plastic debris floating near the Knorr.

Given the fact that plastic takes so long to break down, it should come as no surprise that this problem is still getting worse by the year, despite decades of effort to reduce the sources of pollution.

As a physical oceanographer, I know that the major ocean basins have gyre circulations at mid-latitude. The water moves in a great loop around the center of the ocean basins in the northern and southern hemispheres. Surface waters tend to converge toward the center of these gyres and trash of all sorts concentrates in these spots, far away from the coasts of the continents. In the North Pacific, there is the so-called “Great Garbage Patch” between California and Hawaii. Similar, but less well-known patches occupy dynamically similar regions in the other oceans. Nikolai Maximenko at University of Hawaii, a NASA-funded physical oceanographer studying the Pacific circulation, uses satellite and drifter data to understand this surface circulation in great detail. He made news with his analysis of the fate of tsunami debris from the 2011 Japan disaster.

Here in the Sargasso Sea, we have yet to see some giant patch of garbage (well, except for my desk in the upper lab!), but plastic does abound. I thought that I should testify as to my personal experience of observing so much plastic along our path. It’s more than I remember seeing 30 years ago, when I last sailed for an extended period in the Sargasso Sea. Its certainly not a scientific observation, but it reminds me that we are the creators and users of these materials and we should be the stewards of their disposal as well. So, pick up and recycle any loose plastic you see! It could wind up in the ocean.

Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS): Mooring Deployment

September 17th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

Your SPURS blogger, Eric Lindstrom, showing off the NASA logo on the surface buoy.

The central mooring at the SPURS site is a critical piece of gear. It will provide us with a time series of upper ocean properties at one location over the entire year. We’ll build the other SPURS measurements around this spot on this and future voyages. We’ll “fly” the gliders in patterns centered on this location.

Our first order of business is to survey the bottom depth in the vicinity of the proposed mooring location (near 25N, 38W). The water depth we are aiming for is near 17,390 feet  (5,300 meters).

Tom, working on the survey of bottom depths prior to mooring deployment.

Seabeam maps the bottom along a swath 8 miles wide.

The mooring is anchored to the bottom (with a 10,000 pound anchor). A large, heavily-instrumented buoy at the surface holds the entire string of instruments below. Just above the anchor is an acoustic release mechanism that can disengage the mooring from the anchor on command from the ship next year. Above the release are 80 glass floats (inside hardhats) that serve to float the bottom of the mooring to the surface after release.

80 glass floats in hardhats go at the bottom of the surface mooring.

The glass floats at the bottom of the WHOI mooring, trailing behind the R/V Knorr.

It’s a process of many hours to deploy the mooring. The ship will position itself some miles from the proposed anchoring site (depending on wind and currents) and start steaming toward the spot very slowly. The length of mooring and gear are then deployed over the stern starting with the top of the mooring, the surface buoy. After that various current meters, salinity and temperature sensors are attached in turn with various lengths of chain and shackles. As they are joined, they are in turn lowered over the stern and the surface buoy begins to distance itself in the ship’s wake. About 8 hours after the start of the deployment, the 16,000 feet of mooring is laid out on the surface behind the ship, and all that’s left on deck is the anchor.

At this point, location is everything. If timed correctly, the ship will be some distance past the location mooring intended to land on the bottom (say 10 percent of the water depth). If so, it is time to drop the anchor. As it falls, the length of mooring will drag it back toward the spot it will finally come to rest. We will see the surface buoy begin to rush swiftly back toward the ship (hopefully finishing up at its intended target location).

Lifting the WHOI buoy for deployment.

The buoy is away!

The mooring wire and equipment are gradually added.

Such work has been done thousands of times over the decades, but every deployment presents its own challenges of ocean bottom topography, wind, currents, and equipment. The length of the mooring needs to precisely cut for the water depth in which it is anchored. If it is too long, the mooring swings around too much at the surface. If it is too short, the mooring may be under too much stress or snap.